(PHOENIX) — Arizona on Thursday became the first state in the nation to pass legislation requiring high school students to pass the U.S. citizenship test on civics before they can graduate — part of a growing nationwide effort to boost civics education.
The swift action by the Arizona Legislature comes as states around the country take up similar measures. The proposal requires high school students to correctly answer 60 of 100 questions on the civics portion of the test new citizens must pass.
Critics question whether the test, which relies on memorization, is the best way to engage students in civics education.
The test is being pushed nationally by the Arizona-based Joe Foss Institute, which has set a goal of having all 50 states adopt it by 2017, the 230th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution. The institute says legislatures in 15 states are expected to consider it this year.
The Foss Institute, whose motto is “Patriotism Matters,” created a civics institute to promote the test to state legislatures as a way to increase knowledge of basic government by students.
“It’s genesis is basically an extension of our original mission in trying to ensure the delivery the very basics civics education that every high school graduate should have,” said institute president Frank Riggs, a former California congressman who ran for Arizona governor as a Republican last year.
Joe Foss is a former South Dakota governor and won the Medal of Honor during World War II. He died in 2003.
Both the Arizona House and Senate quickly passed the bill on just the fourth day of the legislative session, and the newly elected Republican governor, Doug Ducey, is expected to sign it Thursday evening.
The North Dakota House of Representatives overwhelming approved the same measure Thursday, but Arizona’s proposal was the first to pass a full Legislature.
The Arizona bill requires students to correctly answer 60 of 100 questions on the test. Passage would be required to earn a high school or GED diploma starting in the 2016-2017 school year.
Ducey called on the Legislature to make the civics test the first bill to hit his desk as governor. He said studies show that students don’t know enough about basic government to grow into effective citizens.
“These are our children, and not long from now, it will be for them to vote on who sits in your chairs and who stands at this podium,” Ducey said in his State of the State address Monday. “How can we expect them to protect the principles on which this country was founded, if we are not preparing them for that task right now?”
Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, an Arizona native, has supported the initiative. She’s made civics education a prime focus in recent years.
“We’re failing to impart the basic knowledge young people need to know to be effective citizens,” O’Connor said at an event in New Hampshire in September. “In too many schools, the subject of civics is considered an elective or peripheral subject.”
Republican Arizona Senate Majority Leader Steve Yarbrough, sponsoring the bill in his chamber, called the test a needed measure.
“Requiring that students pass this test is not by any means a silver bullet, but I think is a step, a small step forward,” he said. “And I think we need to encourage the people of America to become more aware of the values of America.”
A Democratic senator who opposed the bill, David Bradley, said passing the test would do nothing to make good citizens.
“Don’t be fooled into thinking that this does it, that this solves some bigger problem, because it doesn’t,” Bradley said on the Senate floor. “My point now is tests don’t make citizens, citizens are tested by their actions.”
Bradley also said that “this is not the end-all be-all to citizenship and it doesn’t get us any further down the road.”
A high school government teacher, Joe Thomas of Mesa, said he was concerned that having students take a 100-question test would take up an entire class period and is not an effective way of getting students engaged in civics. He said the test is will require rote memorization rather than something that promotes critical thinking.
“The interest is promoting civics and we want to see students engaged,” Thomas said. “I don’t know if a test engages students.”